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See How the Ukulele is Made
Stacks of rough koa timber beams give way to a small shop filled with sawdust, noisy machinery and fifty or so craftspeople cutting, sizing, sanding, bending, gluing, hammering and forming wood. Everyone works with a singular, determined purpose: to make the industry’s most sought after ukulele. This is no ticketed and pre-staged, visitors-stay-behind-the-safety-glass experience. This is the Kamaka Ukulele factory in downtown Honolulu. And any Tuesday through Friday morning starting at 10:30, you can visit. It’s a unique, and uniquely Hawaiian, experience.
Kamaka Ukulele was founded by Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka, Sr. After years of crafting koa wood ukulele models in the basement of his home, he opened his first shop in 1921, during the first early craze for the instrument. And now grandsons Chris, Casey and Fred run the company at its current location, just a few blocks from that first shop. In fact, the current Kamaka facility cuts the large koa timber blocks with a band saw originally used by their grandfather.
The Kamaka ukulele is known around the world as a special instrument for its unique and exceptionally rich tone, due in equal parts to design, wood and construction process; with each model assembled by hand, start-to-finish. In fact, every ukulele built by Kamaka is touched by at least twenty craftsmen and craftswomen.
It takes years of apprenticeship, experience and a woodcrafter’s patience and perfectionism to become a master Kamaka craftsperson, exemplified by two employees who have been with the company for over forty years. It’s easy to understand why they’d stay so long, because even beyond the pleasure one must derive from building one of the world’s highest regarded, and most joyous instruments, Kamaka is a company that reflects the positive Hawaiian values of aloha (love/compassion) malama, (take care of) and pono (goodness).
For example, Kamaka Ukulele hired disabled employees at a time when these workers were viewed as liabilities. It was 1955 and while having a hard time finding good employees, Sam Jr. took his wife’s advice and hired two hearing-impaired individuals. Beyond their dedicated perfectionism, their heightened sense of touch allowed these individuals to measure the thickness of the ukulele sound boxes with complete accuracy by drumming their fingers on the wood and feeling the vibrations. Their perceived disability turned out to be a benefit.
At their current location for fifty years, the Kamaka facility currently produces nine different models, including a variation of Sam Sr.’s original and famous 1928 design of the pineapple ukulele: a standard size ukulele with a unique oval shaped body, similar to a pineapple (the original models were even painted to resemble a pineapple). The company manufactures about 3,000 instruments a year, but still has a backlog of four to six weeks for their stock ukulele and up to a year for a custom design.
The Kamaka ukulele has been the instrument of choice of some of the best and most popular musicians, including Aunty Genoa Keawe, Jake Shimabukuro, George Harrison, Daniel Ho, Kealii Reichel, Ziggy Marley and Bryan Tolentino.
For a genuine Hawaii experience off the beaten path (no throngs of tourists here), but only minutes from your Waikiki hotel, check out the Kamaka Ukulele factory. Tours are held Tuesday – Fridays beginning at 10:30 AM. Admission is free and no advance reservations are needed.
And if you are staying at the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, keep an eye, and an ear, out for Chris Kamaka and pal, Baba Alimoot. They often perform in the lobby (usually Wednesday evenings) as the musical duo Hema Paa.